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According to the 2011 census, 8.9 per cent of the population of South Africa self-identifies as coloured. Many individuals who were identified as ‘coloured’ under apartheid are now self-identifying as San or Khoekhoe. In fact under almost any definition many other South Africans are of ‘mixed race’. The communities designated as coloured are primarily descended from the Khoisan people who originally inhabited the western parts of South Africa, from Asian and African slaves brought to the Cape from the earliest years of the colony, from European settlers, and from other Africans. The long process of mixing and acculturation led to the extinction of several Khoisan languages; most coloured people speak Afrikaans as a first language and most still live in the Western and Northern Cape provinces, where they comprise an overall majority of the population.

Historical context

In many ways the exploitation of the coloured community, living in longer and closer proximity to European settlers than most black communities, has been the most intensive in South Africa. Traditional cultures were destroyed and replaced with almost universal conditions of servitude and subservience. Labour conditions on the farms of the Western Cape have been notorious. The forced removals of mixed-race communities from Cape Town in the 1950s and 1960s were among the most pitiless in the annals of apartheid; the new ghettos which resulted face some of the worst crime and other social challenges in the country.

Coloured voting patterns in the 1994 election provided a striking example of the potential for the continuation of racial politics in democratic conditions. Although opposition to coloured co-option into the apartheid system via the ‘tricameral parliament’ in 1983 had been widespread, a decade later most coloured votes went to the National Party, the instrument of decades of racial oppression. The reasons were complex but a central core was lack of identification, for cultural and linguistic reasons, with the majority black population. In 1999 elections the New National Party (NPP) lost coloured votes to the ANC and Democratic Party. In the 2004 vote, coloureds largely split their vote between the ANC and Democratic Party, while the NPP suffered losses that helped bring about its demise.

Current issues

An ongoing legacy of the apartheid era, in nearly all social indicators – from average income to rates of HIV infection – coloureds as a group still rank between blacks and whites. In the coloured-majority Western Cape many coloureds remain wary of affirmative action programs that they fear will benefit blacks at their expense. The opposition Democratic Alliance has maintained its hold on Cape Town in local elections since 2006.  Poverty levels remain high at 41.6 per cent, compared to 0.6 per cent among white South Africans.

Updated March 2018


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